(Originally published in the Australian Jewish News, May 31, 2002)
Each year come the June long weekend, I feel that tinge of excitement again, for it marks the commencement of the annual Sydney Film Festival, one of Australia’s oldest and most successful festivals. Each year the Festival features a number of films with significant Jewish themes, and 2002 is no exception.
Although she was not Jewish herself, Marlene Dietrich stands as one of the important European film and entertainment personalities of the 1920s and 1930s, from Germany to Hollywood. Her grandson J. David Riga has produced a documentary entitled “Marlene Dietrich – Her Own Song”. Including previously unpublished material from her estate, the film shows in detail Dietrich’s passionate opposition to the Nazi regime: she refused Goebbels’ offers to become the reigning queen of Nazi cinema, and actively campaigned for and entertained Allied soldiers. Dietrich’s actions deprived the Nazis of an important propaganda victory and created one of the popular heroes of the era. This film celebrates her memory.
“Recording the Producers: A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks” is not the film of the new Broadway show, but details the recording of the soundtrack. Fans of Brooks will happily recall his amazing 1968 film “The Producers”, which has been turned into a multi-award winning play starring Nathan Lane as Max and Matthew Broderick as the accountant Leo. With ongoing commentary by Brooks (who once declared that all of his comedy arises from Jewish pain and suffering), this is a most entertaining documentary: it lives, breathes and vibrates with energy and professionalism. What strikes the viewer is that “The Producers” stage musical has been done in a classic style, with catchy harmony and undeniable talent, and Brooks’ humour (who else could have created Springtime for Hitler”?) has remained popular for almost three generations.
Certainly the most important of the Festival’s “Jewish” films is the Israeli film “Late Marriage” (“Hatouna Mehuheret”). This is the first feature by director Dover Kosashvili, who was born in Georgia (of the former Soviet Union), and studied film at the University of Tel Aviv. Clearly drawing on his own experiences, “Late Marriage” tells the story of 31 year-old Georgian-born Zaza, a PhD Philosophy student with a family so keen to see him married in the family tradition that they will go to extraordinary lengths.
Although he is introduced to one young potential match after another (tradition has it that the groom must be about eight years older than the bride), Zaza prefers the lively Judith, a divorced Morrocan immigrant with a six year-old daughter – clearly an unsuitable match for the beloved Zaza. In one unforgettable scene, the whole family bursts into Judith’s flat when Zaza is there, in order to force the two lovers to separate. As a portrait of modern secular Israeli society colliding with traditional immigrant customs, “Late Marriage” is one of the very best Israeli films in years. The writing is top-notch, although some of the acting is wooden and unconvincing at times.
A number of other Jewish film-makers also feature in the Festival, with premieres of documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s “Domestic Violence”, Moises Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” (about the murder of a young homosexual man in Wyoming), Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” (based on the underground comic book) and Matthew Ginsburg’s personal “Uncle Frank”. Also of interest is Sydney film-maker Sherine Salama’s “A Wedding in Ramallah”, a poignant tale of two Palestinians meeting and marrying in 2000, then attempting to live ordinary lives in the face of the new intifida.